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Lokvani Talks To Chandra Prasad

Ranjani Saigal

Chandra Prasad is a writer and editor with an established track record in both fiction and nonfiction. A graduate of Yale University, most recently, Prasad completed a novel based on the life of Amelia Earhart. It is called Breathe the Sky. Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed, writes that Breathe the Sky "is, by turns, an adventure story, a love story, and a cautionary tale about the double-edged sword of modern American celebrity. From lift-off to landing, [it] is a novel that soars.”

She has written other novels including "On Borrowed Wings" set in Depression Era Connecticut. Always interested in issues of identity, Prasad decided that the circus, with its motley cast and meritocratic pecking order, would be the perfect setting for another one of her books "Death of a Circus".
She is also the originator and editor of and contributor to "Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience", which was published to international acclaim by W.W. Norton.

Prasad penned the popular career guide "Outwitting the Job Market"  and scores of articles on diversity and the workplace. Her works have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Week, Teen Voices, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

She talked to Lokvani about her new book Breathe the Sky
How did you get inspired to write about Amelia Earhart?

Toward the end of my previous novel, On Borrowed Wings, Amelia Earhart makes a brief appearance.  That book is set in the 1930s at Yale University, and in reality Earhart did make a trip to the campus to give a lecture, as she does in the scene.  In writing On Borrowed Wings my interest in Earhart was sparked.  I read everything I could get my hands on about her, first for the sake of research and then out of intense personal curiosity.  Eventually all that research turned into a writing project, which took the form of Breathe the Sky.  With this novel, I tried to tell the personal side of Earhart’s story: the private hopes and fears embedded within her brilliant legacy.

 Being an American with a strong ethnic background how did you decide to step away from plots that are ethnic in nature and deal with such a mainstream topic?

Actually, the vast majority of my writing has to do with identity, and Breathe the Sky is no exception.  In the case of this novel, I explore Earhart’s desire to be a pivotal figure in women’s history.  Ever since her girlhood, in which her natural charisma was obvious and encouraged, Earhart was fascinated with women who had broken records across different industries and disciplines.  She wanted to be one of those women: a record-breaker, a standout.  But it wasn’t until she discovered aviation, and was given a chance by George Palmer Putnam to gain a firm foothold in that field, that she pursued being the world’s most famous pilot.

 How did you collect all the historical information for the book?
A great many biographies on Earhart have been written, and I’ve tried to read as many of them as possible!  Every ten years or so, cultural interest in Earhart surges, and it is usually accompanied by a new spate of books which focus on what happened to her after she disappeared.  Did she crash her plane near New Guinea and drown?  Was she captured and taken prisoner?  Lots of wild theories have abounded since her attempt to fly around the world, and attention since then has shifted away from her massive contributions to aviation and women’s rights.  Breathe the Sky refocuses on the exciting existence she led toward the end of her career—not on what happened to her once she was lost.

How did you succeed in adding such rich texture to the characters?

It was easy to find inspiration in Earhart’s natural substance and style.  This was a woman who had traveled the world, who loved to describe different cultures and peoples, who interacted regularly with celebrities and luminaries of her day, who was dear friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and the president.  Once I learned a little about Earhart, I couldn’t help but want to know more—to want to know everything.  And by “everything,” I mean the things that are not much discussed in polite biographies, like what was Amelia thinking and feeling during a gruelingly long solo flight, in a cramped cockpit, with too-little oxygen, darting through a storm that might very well take her life?  Was she able to drink or eat, to breathe, to urinate?  Was she ever overcome with fear or exhaustion?  Did she ever get lost or lose faith?  What was it like being on the brink of survival of one day, and the toast of the world the next?

 Do you have experience in the field of  aviation?

For Breathe the Sky I had a great flying consultant.  His name is Quentin “Dale” Plumleigh.  He’s a pilot, formally trained as a radio operator, and has been active in aviation his entire life, including a twenty-year stint with the U.S. Air Force.  On top of that, he has always been fascinated with Earhart and is familiar with her career and also with the navigational principles used during her lifetime.  Dale made sure the aeronautical features of Breathe the Sky were accurate.

 You subtly introduced the problems with getting safe abortions during her time. Any comments on that topic?

Well, my book is fiction.  It’s a novel.  Thus, Breathe the Sky doesn’t claim to make any definitive statements about Earhart’s medical history.  We know from her real-life letters to her sister that Earhart knew about abortion as a procedure.  However, when the issue of abortion is broached in Breathe the Sky, it’s mostly to create a sense of Earhart’s day, and in particular, the options available (and not available) to educated American women in the early twentieth century.

What is your favorite scene in the book?

My favorite scene in the book is probably Earhart’s brave crossing of Atlantic.  The first time Earhart flew over the Atlantic, she was merely a passenger.  The next time she was the pilot—and all alone—and the stakes were considerably higher.

(Excerpt from Breathe the Sky by Chandra Prasad.  Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Inc.  © 2009 Chandra Prasad.  All rights reserved.)

      A.E.’s weather advisor, Doc Kimball, gives a tepid go-ahead.  That’s all she needs.  She grabs some sleep as a colleague flies her to St. John, New Brunswick, and later, to Harbor Grace, NewFoundland.  On May 20, exactly three years to the day after Charles Lindberg’s ballyhooed crossing, she’s off, by herself, her mechanics crossing their fingers and saying more prayers, and G.P. pitching the story far and wide.  The decent weather as far as Newfoundland has given her hope that her solo flight will be less treacherous than it has been for others.  She touches the winged U.S. Air Service pin on her heart for luck.  It doesn’t last long.  A storm comes barreling along within hours, erasing her visibility utterly.  She’s flying blind: the clouds are like billows of the darkest, foulest factory smoke; she can’t even see the plane’s nose.  The moon, which had been providing neighborly comfort, disappears.  She uses the scarf around her neck to swab her eyes, which are running from the bite of freezing air, the reek of burning gasoline.

      People sometimes ask her what she thinks about at critical times like this one.  Usually she’ll smile and tell them the truth: it’s indulgent to think at all.  If she’s going to get herself out of trouble, like any good pilot she must think of her plane, not herself.  She can’t for a second separate flesh from steel, arms from wings, feet from the rudder pedals, hands from the controls.  Wisdom is a fine ally, sure, but instinct is the one that counts.  In a pinch, instinct will save her life.

      The storm is raging outside of her flying machine, thousands of feet above the earth, where the oxygen is precious, and she has to breath very deeply to keep sound of mind.  She descends slightly, but suspects the altimeter is stuck.  She’s tilted, the plane is angled downward; she can feel the decline.  Still, the altimeter registers nothing.  She dives lower: the read holds steady at twelve thousand feet.  She must be at ten thousand, or even eight thousand by now.  Her ears pop like explosive corks, the pressure feels like rocks in her skull.  The storm is relentless: it bangs at the wings, pings the tin with hail, and leaves icy hieroglyphics on windows.

      Though she was hoping to swoop under the storm, the lower she gets, the more lethal it seems.  She doesn’t know exactly how shallow she’s flying, but she recognizes she’s in a deeper jam than before.  She must skirt over the storm instead.  Though a higher altitude will eat up her fuel, she has no choice—it’s that or continuous physical battery.  Ignoring the busted altimeter, she noses up.  She passes into and through the worst of the downpour and lightning, holding tight, the whole craft vibrating, and she, at its heart, trembling too.  Blood starts to pour out of one of her nostrils.  She’s hardly aware of this additional unpleasantness.  She licks her lips, tasting the warm, brackish-oily fluid with her tongue.

      The plane rebels against this new, lofty height.  The tachometer, an instrument that gauges the engine’s rotational performance, spins crazily.  A.E. can now estimate neither her altitude nor her speed, and thus has no sense how far she’s traveled, or even whether she’s on course.  Nothing is going right, but this is something she has to accept.  It’s always been one of the possibilities: the complete and utter breakdown of mechanical aid.  She makes herself pause between each breath, to keep from hyperventilating, to stave off the terror.

      She has no safe haven.  At lower levels the storm continues to rage, but the higher she flies, the more weak and debilitated her vessel becomes.  For hours she rides an altitudinous roller coaster.  She chooses one battle or the other: a collision with squalls and monstrous winds, or the brutal symptoms of mechanical hypothermia, one or the other, over and over, roll the dice and pick your demon.

      At the edge of one storm is the beginning of a new, equally vicious one.  It tosses the plane, and A.E. along with it.  Her hands on the controls, and her eyes, though wet and itchy and pink-raw, are fastened keenly to the changing sky, hoping for signs of a clearing.  She tries to relax the tense muscles in her back; she stretches one leg as far as the compartment’s confines will allow, then the other.  One of her knees locks.  She forces it into reanimation with a stiff, swift chop of the hand.  She’s been flying for eleven and a half hours now, the whirring motors so loud her ears have given up ringing.  She’s coping with contaminated, stale air, a cockpit that barely contains her gangly limbs, and a dozen other evils she doesn’t dare dwell on.  She hasn’t heard a human voice for what feels like years, though the radio is on; she wishes someone would talk to her.  Cramps roll through her stomach, and probably she should drink some of the soup, but her bladder is full and tight already.  Male pilots can use the relief tubes, but these are of no use to women.  She’s conditioned herself to holding her urine, normally.  Considering the situation—probably the worst it’s ever been, the closest she’s come to perishing—she lets herself pee.  The warm release of wet between her legs, which would ordinarily offend her sensibilities, feels oddly soothing.

      All she knows is how long she’s been flying—there is no other information available to her—but this is enough for her to understand one thing: she’s past the point of safe return.  She will either make her goal, or not, but she doesn’t have enough fuel to  return to the airfield at Harbor Grace.  If she were driving an automobile she would pull over now, and rest.  A single person in a plane does not have this option, but nonetheless she has to calm herself.  With one hand she manages to prick a can of tomato juice with an ice pick she keeps stowed under her seat.  She drinks the whole cold can in one go.

      The juice gives her the little burst of energy she needs to face the latest crisis: a weld on her manifold shows a visible crack.  This means that her fuel is probably leaking out, and she’s already wasted so much of it coping with the storms.  In addition, carbon dioxide from the exhaust flames is entering directly into the cockpit.  No wonder she’s having more trouble breathing than usual.  Underneath, at a queer angle below her feet, she can actually see the fire from the manifold.  With so much to contend with, it’s possible the fracture has escaped her attention for a while.  The pain in her gut intensifies.  Several times she swallows vomit as it spurts up her throat.  Unraveling the scarf from her neck, she stuffs it into the crack.

      She’s much too high, above an altitude any rational mechanic or pilot would approve of, but the Atlantic has so far demanded the impossible.  Her plane gives out first.  So much ice has formed on the wings it loses its balance, careening down, now in a full-fledged tailspin.  The ship nosedives so fast A.E.’s head flings back violently on the divider between cockpit and fuselage, giving her a lump the size of a robin’s egg.  She can’t get the bird under control, it’s abused and angry, and now the ocean’s surface is visible, terrifyingly so, yet somehow in the knick of time she levels the craft, and coaxes it back up.

      Her nose has stopped bleeding, she thinks.  Alas, as she feels the bump on the back of her head, she also feels something oozy and slick in her hair.  Maybe it’s sweat or blood, but more likely it’s fuel, and sure enough, when she brings her fingers to her nose to sniff, she realizes it’s gasoline dripping from a reserve fuel tank.  Glancing at the fuel gauge, she sees it’s met the same fate as the altimeter and tachometer.  All her equipment: broken, useless.  She has her estimation abilities, and faith, and that’s about it.

      She thinks she will perish.  Her odds, not too good to begin with, are much worse now.  Even when the sky finally clears and the sight of vivid blue sky and calm soft clouds seems like the face of god himself, she is fairly certain she will die due to insufficient fuel.  Or maybe the manifold will be her fiery undoing.  It’s not until she spots a fishing vessel that she gives herself a decent shot at surviving.  A fishing boat, like gulls, means that land is close.  The shoreline of which country, she doesn’t know, nor does she really care at this point.  Originally she’d hoped to make it to Paris, but that feels like a farce.

      An hour later she sees the rich textured glory of coastline, lush greens and savory browns, and she laughs out loud.  Descending, she sees railroad tracks and a meadow, but no airfield, and so settles on a grassy pasture that looks level enough. The landing takes every last iota of her concentration, and the plane’s stamina.  “Please don’t catch fire, please don’t catch fire,” she says, as wheels meet land.  Upon impact, the injured manifold might detonate the whole craft.  She opens the hatch and gets out of the plane quickly, if stiffly.  Relieved but not quite convinced she’s going to make it, she scurries away from the vessel, which is smoking.

      Finally, she settles down in the field quite a ways from her plane.  She lies somewhere on the map of the world, a random tiny speck in Scotland or England, maybe even Spain.  On her back she just breathes.  In another minute she’ll change her soiled pants and scrub the grease and crusted blood from her face, the gasoline streaks from the nape of her neck.  She’ll splash her eyes with water and hope they are not too pink.  She’ll suck on a mint and run a comb through her hair, and walk quite a ways before finding an astonished, not unkind farmer named Dan McCallion, who will inform her that she is in Londonderry, in the north of Ireland, in the middle of his cow pasture.

      In another minute, life will be entirely different, life will be hers again to possess, but for now she is still on the cold earth, grateful for the feel of it on her back, against her calves and buttocks and the back of her head.  She stares up at the wide sky that has accommodated her, yet again, and she whispers humbly: “Thank you.”

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